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Chenoweth charms, but it isn't enough

Sunday, June 03, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Sometimes good intentions aren't good enough.

Much as I appreciate what the creators and star of "Kristin" are attempting, they just don't pull it off successfully.

Premiering Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. on NBC, "Kristin" stars Tony-winner Kristin Chenoweth (Broadway's "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown") as Kristin Yancey, a conservative woman from Oklahoma with Broadway dreams.

To pay the rent, Kristin's minister gets her a job as a secretary for New York playboy Tommy Ballantine (Jon Tenney), whose previous assistants have charged him with harassment. He sees virtuous Kristin as a challenge - in more ways than one.

Short and squeaky-voiced, Chenoweth charms her way through the show, but charm alone can't elevate pedestrian writing. NBC knows this, too, which is probably why the show is getting a dreaded "summer premiere," which in network parlance is a kiss-off: "Don't call us, we won't call you."

 
 
TV REVIEW

"Kristin"

When: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on NBC.

Starring: Kristin Chenoweth, Jon Tenney.

   
 

Chenoweth is already attached to "Seven Roses," a CBS sitcom about a family-run bed and breakfast, that may launch at mid-season. If "Kristin" gets picked up, she'll stay with it. If not, she'll move on.

"I'm hopeful [about 'Kristin'] because I know there have been summer shows that go on and do well," she said in an interview last month. "But I'm also a realist. I will be disappointed if it doesn't go on past the summer."

Even though the writing for "Kristin" is lackluster, I find myself cheering for the show by virtue of the show's ... well, virtue. Viewers don't often see prime-time TV characters who espouse religious devotion and more traditional ideas of morality. The show's very brief theme song, performed by Chenoweth, pegs its thesis with these lyrics: "Hold on to who you are."

In one of the 13 episodes produced, Tommy uses the phrase "make-up sex." Kristin gives him a look that he interprets as confusion. He starts to explain it to her.

"I know what it is, Tommy," she says, cutting him off. "I do live amongst you."

Kristin isn't a naive prude; she simply makes choices different from those of most over-sexed sitcom characters.

Creator/executive producer John Markus ("The Cosby Show," "Lateline") has attempted to shake up prime time with "Kristin," but given NBC's scheduling, it appears to be a failed effort.

"I thought, wouldn't it be nice to show the struggle that people who hold their moral beliefs have in today's society?" Markus said in January at the winter TV critics press tour. "I felt like I had the opportunity to make someone virtuous funny. She has a sense of humor about herself and her own beliefs."

Markus said he showed the "Kristin" pilot script to the Rev. Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, who ran the Humanitas Prize until his death last year. Markus said Kaiser had high hopes for the program but raised one concern.

"Please be careful that she's never self-righteous or holier than thou," Markus recalled him saying, "because in the media, that's the stigma we all have."

Markus said finding Chenoweth was key to making "Kristin." Like the character, Chenoweth was raised Southern Baptist outside Tulsa, Okla. Unlike most Hollywood celebrities, she continues to attend church (though she now attends a nondenominational Christian church in Los Angeles).

Chenoweth said the character she plays on "Kristin" hits close to home, but it is a character.

"There are some of my personality traits. They've expounded on certain life experiences I've had, but it's definitely a character I'm playing," Chenoweth said. "I'm not Kristin Yancey. She's a little bit more quirky and offbeat."

The character's values are what appealed to Chenoweth because in the backward world of Hollywood, Chenoweth found the morally conservative character "controversial."

"It's not safe and it's going to take hits, but I want to see this person evolve," she said in January. "It's dangerous. Networks and studios are scared of it, and I don't know why. I look at wonderful shows like 'Will & Grace,' which I love, and homosexuality is a big part of that. Other shows are just downright mean, and we love to laugh. But when a person comes along who's good and spiritual, people go, 'Well, I don't know.' Why do we have to be afraid of that? That's how most people really are."

Markus recalled a meeting with studio executives that Chenoweth attended. She was proper, poised and polite. After she left the meeting, an executive looked at Markus and asked, "What is she? Give her two weeks out here in Hollywood and she'll be as corrupt as any other actress."

"I hate to talk badly about Hollywood because of how good it's been to me," Markus said. "But I think there's a tendency to live in an insular world in Hollywood and focus on what does well and to write dysfunction. Dysfunction is very big in sitcoms, but the fear is we're leaving out a large group of people when we do that, and that's what I hope to get in touch with here."

When she moved to Los Angeles, Chenoweth said she thought she'd be the only actress in church, but she said that's not the case.

"I looked over in church the other day and saw Craig T. Nelson, and I thought, there's just a normal guy going to church with his family," she said. "There are a lot of people out here who are of faith, but nobody wants to talk about it. It's weird to me."

It's weird to me, too.


You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com emailaddress. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, May 31, 2001

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